The Essential Lincoln: Speeches and Correspondence
Voice of genius
By Steven Martinovich
It was William Shakespeare who once wrote that "[t]he evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones." While that is unquestionably true of any number of political leaders, it cannot so be said of Abraham Lincoln. In this, the year of the bicentennial of his birth, we are reminded by the current American president that although the journey from what America promised all of its citizens was long – too long – it was Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that was its first step. It was a promise made by one man to another a century later, both of whom would be assassinated by enemies of liberty for all.
It is that first man who is illuminated by Orville Vernon Burton's The Essential Lincoln: Speeches and Correspondence. Burton, who authored the respected The Age of Lincoln in 2007, has collected some of Republican president's words covering a three decade span in his public life. The usual selections are of course present, which include Lincoln's 1858 "House Divided" speech, his inaugural addresses and the proclamation itself, Burton also includes a number of lesser known writings including letters Lincoln wrote to friends and speeches delivered earlier in his career. A common thread, not surprisingly, was Lincoln's grappling with the issue of slavery – an issue which had threatened to split up his beloved union since the first day of its existence.
Although the star for many is likely Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg address, not surprising since it combined brevity and a powerful message – a lesson the current resident of the White House would do well to learn, the centerpiece in Burton's collection may actually be a February 1860 speech Lincoln delivered in New York City. In it Lincoln forcefully opposes the spread of slavery into the free territories and attempts to demolish the notion that the Founding Fathers favoured its existence. While he grudgingly accepts the then current existence of slavery, only to preserve the union from the civil war he seems to know is coming, he takes aim at the notion that the slaves are merely property.
The conflicted nature of Lincoln's message – he accepts slavery while arguing slaves aren't merely property, tolerates its existence while fighting its spread – lends credence to the notion that this period in his life was a bridge from a reluctant proponent of the status quo to the conservative revolutionary who would soon declare the its death. The power of Lincoln's words underline how forceful he meant his message to be, both the south who viewed him as their enemy and to a north who had unrealistic expectations for imminent emancipation of the slaves.
If there are criticisms of The Essential Lincoln they are slight. Burton chose to present many of Lincoln's speeches in an abridged format to focus on the core of what he was attempting to argue. While Burton preserved the meaning of Lincoln's words, a reader might be forgiven in wondering what other context those removed sections might have provided – or simply illustrate the thoughts that Lincoln thought were important enough to mention, even if only as an aside. The other criticism is one of insatiability; Burton offers up 29 speeches and letters and it would be fair to say that only offers up a taste of the brilliance that is Lincoln and leaves one wanting much more.
The Essential Lincoln is a beautiful introduction to Lincoln's thoughts and Burton should be commended in selecting an excellent sample of his work. His hand as editor is slight and allows the true Lincoln to shine forth from the pages. Once again we are reminded why Lincoln is so revered among American presidents – his reputation for integrity and intellect are buttressed by every sentence. It is no surprise that among all American presidents, for all their notable accomplishments, that Abraham Lincoln is the one respected by virtually every American no matter how they choose to describe themselves.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
Buy The Essential Lincoln at Amazon.com for only $13.46 (25% off)
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!